7. Hope Fails
Merry trained his attention on the task assigned to him, willing his mind not to wander. It was hard enough not to think of where might Legolas and Gimli be in these dreadful caves, or what might Saruman be doing with Strider. But with his cousin out of sight, he could barely keep his fear at bay.
He hadn't been sure in what sort of fix he would find himself as he followed Uglúk, then Norgry into the Pits. He'd hoped to have a chance to sneak around and find the others. Eventually, Norgry had given him chores that no one else apparently wanted. He'd been put into a crude room that seemed to serve as a sort of pantry or kitchen, dim but for the light from a rough hearth's fire. Now, with a filthy rag tied to a stick, he cleared floors of rank muck whose origins he truly did not want to know.
There was so much around him to shut out: the rhythmic clang of metal on metal from the many forges below, the hollers and shouts of the ever-quarrelling Orcs, the foul stench that permeated the air and threatened to dispel even his appetite. And finally, there was the inescapable dark - or rather, the lack of natural light, which reminded him of all that he was separated from, perhaps forever.
Merry shivered as his thoughts drifted back to Pippin - his cousin was in the service of Saruman! Although, he had to admit his own predicament was quite possibly worse. He was in the depths of Orthanc, servant to an Orc. What would his Da say if he could see him, he wondered. Still, they could have fared worse, and Merry reminded himself to be grateful. They were forced into servitude, but they had not been tortured, not as yet. And though they served the corrupt wizard, they owed Saruman nothing more than obedience, a bitter fact Merry assuaged with thoughts of escape.
After scooping the sludge into a hole in the corner that served as a drain, Merry stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow, careful to avoid touching the slick walls as he set down his mop. The air sweltered from the heat of the ever-burning fires - fires for which he would soon haul firewood, he'd been told. As he started in another grimy corner, Norgry stomped through one entrance to the room and only nodded quickly to Merry as he left through another. He'd been left to his own much more than he'd expected, after a spout of boasting from Norgry that drew much unwanted attention, but he supposed this Orc wasn't accustomed to having a servant. He was determined to take advantage as much as he could.
As a small Orc brought in a cauldron of the noisome concoction the creatures drank and placed it on the fire, Merry looked longingly upon the opening through which Norgry had passed. A narrow stone passage lay beyond, dark but for the dull fiery glow that washed this underground world in shades of orange and black. The constant clanging, chilling shouts and cries, and the occasional pounding of footsteps made the world beyond the room formidable to a hobbit. But he had now seen two Orcs pass that way. With something too frail to be called hope, Merry stepped into the corridor and let his eyes adjust, before taking a few tentative steps to his right. As the heat increased, the path curved to his left, and where another tunnel broke off on his right, the gloom deepened. Peering into the shadows of the second tunnel, his sight reached no farther than his hand. He would look more deeply at his next chance and find the end of that path. It was likely he alone among his friends had the ability to move about so freely. It might be up to him entirely to find an escape for them now. If he could learn his way through these tunnels, he just might save their lives.
He quickly returned to the kitchen to pick up his mop, just as another Orc brought in an empty cauldron. Merry knew he could not hope to be left alone for more than moments at a time, so he would accept small bits of knowledge won slowly. But how frustrating to know that as he waited, his friends suffered! How long would Legolas and Gimli endure? Or Strider? He could do nothing for the man, but he hoped to find Legolas and Gimli and learn how they fared. Could he find a way to free them? He had no notion of where they were held -
There was that screaming again. When he had first arrived, the hollers had sounded much like the Orcs' arguing during their march to the Tower. This was different. This was someone in pain.
Merry covered his mouth as he gasped and tears sprang to his eyes. He covered his ears, then spared one hand for his face. But the screams reached his ears too easily and his hope drained away like soil in a rainstorm. As the cries faded, he caught his breath and groped for his mop.
"What are you doing? Aren't you supposed to be doing something?"
"Eh, yes, em, I'm mopping the floor, see? Those were my orders." Merry tried to wipe his face surreptitiously as he returned to his chore.
The Orc chuckled. "The Pits too much for you? Oh, you'll grow to love them, you will. They'll be just like home in no time!" The Orc cackled, happy with himself.
Thoughts of home made his heart ache, but he managed to remember the notion that had begun to play in his mind earlier. "Could I have some water?"
"Water? What for?"
"To drink," Merry said calmly. "I'm thirsty."
"Oh, right. You little rats can't take our drink. And the Boss says to keep you alive, so I guess there's nothing for it! There's a well down that tunnel. Keep going, you'll see it."
Just the chance Merry was hoping for. "Thank you." He left immediately, noting details as he walked slowly down the dark hall. As he passed the murky passage, he peered into the blackness but continued on his way. He truly needed water, so he would find the well first. On the left, an archway opened to the inner pits below where Orcs worked. Studiously ignoring the opening, Merry followed the sound of water trickling out of a hole in the stone, where the relative cleanliness of the water surprised him. On his return, he found the passage and quickly snuck in a few paces. It did indeed go farther, much farther.
Running his hands along the damp surface, he stepped carefully yet quickly as he dared. It went on for some time, and after twenty paces he stopped. The entrance looked far away already. He turned back to the darkness. Was there anything here worth looking farther? Five more steps. Nothing he could see yet. He turned around and rushed back to the pantry. Perhaps he'd investigate this one further, or maybe he would try another corridor and hope he found more than today.
As the Orc brought the man to Saruman, resentment bubbled within the wizard and he narrowed his eyes. Five of them, five prisoners he had, and not one had given him the answers he required. He was confident in the strength of his power. The melody of his voice ensnared those of weaker mind, creating the desire within them to agree with him and please him. Under his enchantment they did his bidding without question. All but the strongest minds eventually bent to his will. Under such force, Saruman could alter the thought of any mortal, and perhaps a young elf, and persuade them to act as he commanded them. To draw answers to specific questions, however, was not truly his power; even a weak mind was able to focus on such an overt act and resist. After making some effort to hone his skills, he was now able to accomplish small gains from the process, such as the names of his prisoners. But said prisoners would not relinquish the knowledge he required. Such a task demanded more drastic, albeit traditional, means of persuasion.
Thus had he made clear the real threat of the Orcs' 'hospitality,' and made good on that threat with two. Saruman huffed as he recalled the dwarf and elf, one more obstinate than the other. The halflings - with those he had to take more care. The one now serving the uruk would weary quickly. Clearly both halflings would die easily, but they would not perish before he wished it, and not without revealing the location of the one who carried the Ring. How that one had escaped his uruks he could not imagine, but there would be no escape for these. He thought perhaps they knew so, from the defeated expressions on their faces.
Now, as Saruman walked across the main chamber, he considered the one who trailed behind him. Aragorn. That name had changed much. Son of Arathorn. Chief of the Dúnedain. Heir of Isildur. Surely there was more here to be gained than simply information. The thought planted a seed of new plans in his mind. His frustration with the lot from Imladris eased, his need for information receded, and these were replaced by curiosity over the potential held in the man and his destiny. Confidence surged through him then that all was not lost. If he could not have the Ring of Power, the heir to the throne of Gondor was perhaps ample compensation. Mayhap he need not wrest from the Dúnadan what he knew of the Ring or the halfling who carried it. He would begin to press his will upon him and sway his view on approaching - and perhaps more urgent - events. The Dúnadan was of a strong will and mind, no doubt, for he had kept his true name from him on the plains. Saruman had the means to weaken the man's mind further, if need be. That would likely prove unnecessary, however, for Saruman was stronger.
Yes, Saruman saw it clearly, a vision of the heir of Isildur bowing before him and then leading an army out of Isengard at his command. With this man under his control, he could influence King and Steward alike, even change the course of the coming war. As of now, he had only possession of the man. But soon enough, this Ranger would do his bidding. He had thought only to make him speak. Instead, Saruman would speak to him. He would show him the new way, where Saruman's word was done. Saruman reined in his growing fervor as he changed direction and led the Orc and the Dúnadan into another shadowy alcove.
Turning to look at the man, he resisted the urge to laugh. "Stand before me, Man!" As the Ranger was brought before him, Saruman sneered. The man was haggard, filthy, and maimed. "How wretched, the future king of Gondor indeed!" He saw the resentment in the man's face and the anger that lay beneath and was glad. His emotions were near the surface and would be easily manipulated. "You are just as feeble and disgraceful as your ancestor, who bears the burden of all you and your dear ones now suffer. I am sure he looks upon you with pride," Saruman said, lacing his words with contempt and his voice with his persuasive power. He saw then impatience in the man's face. Rather presumptuous, this one. He likely had long tired of waiting to learn what fate awaited him. He would wait no longer.
Aragorn glared at Saruman, willing his barbed words to end. Each phrase needled his wounded pride and fed his growing regret over his ill-made decisions. As a result, his despair wrapped more tightly round him. But his well-trained restraint enabled him to remain silent as Saruman finally ended his tirade and led him into a dim recess off the main hall. It was similar to the one in which he and Pippin had taken their meal, though it reached deeper into the shadows and was drearier for it. An Orc deposited a torch into a sconce, but it did little to chase away the shadows. At the wizard's command, the Orc dragged Aragorn to Saruman, who stood before some small structure, perhaps a pillar or post draped with cloth. As the Orc thrust him before Saruman, the wizard's words chilled Aragorn with foreboding. "So proud, so defiant. You shall soon learn the new way of things."
The Orc brought him closer as Saruman stepped aside. Aragorn swayed in his exhaustion and struggled to puzzle out Saruman's actions, as the wizard grabbed the ropes tying his hands together and lifted his arms. In one motion, he ripped off the cloth covering the pillar behind him and planted Aragorn's hands on a smooth dark stone lying on the pedestal.
Aragorn gasped as he found himself thrown into an eddy of endless depths. The shadows of the alcove, the glaring face of Saruman, even the cold, smooth stone, all of it faded away as his vision was filled with a suffocating black darker than night. Aragorn strove to pull away from the stone where Saruman had placed his hands, but it was as if there was nothing against which to push.
Even as he attempted to make sense of what was happening, the gloom began to clear to a dim grey. He sensed, then saw shadows moving about, which soon became figures, and then Aragorn was on the fields of Rohan, amidst a fierce battle. Startled, Aragorn first tried to dodge an oncoming sword, then to rush an Orc, weaponless or no. But his efforts were in vain. He could move neither to his own aid nor that of another.
As he stood helpless, Orcs viciously attacked the Rohirrim. Some part of his mind tried to explain how this came to be, as the scene before him continued. The Rohirrim defended their land valiantly, but if only by numbers, they were fated for defeat. Powerless to do aught but witness the destruction, Aragorn watched in grim resignation as warriors of Rohan were slain before him. As the Orcs carried on their merciless conquest, Aragorn found he could not turn away as bodies were mutilated; he could not close his eyes as Orcs licked blood from their blades and howled in victory.
After what seemed a lifetime, blackness returned until Saruman was before him once more, eyes boring into him. Disoriented, he could form neither words nor thought. As Saruman released his hold on the stone, Aragorn shuddered. His knees gave way, and he collapsed to the floor, sending pain shooting through his injured leg that helped to clear his mind. He could only catch his breath and watch wide-eyed as Saruman sneered. "Think on what you have seen, Dúnadan. What would you do? What hope is there? Can you yet save them, heir of Isildur?" With that, he left the alcove, his questions hanging in the air behind him.
Lying prone on the floor, still panting, Aragorn's scattered thoughts returned to the army of Rohirrim cut down before his eyes. He saw them whether his eyes were open or closed, but he tore his thoughts from that field. Though he would not have thought it possible, he was far wearier than he had been before he had entered this room. His body felt weighted down, his head too heavy to lift. As drained as he felt, questions plagued him. Had this been a vision of Saruman's creation? Or had he taken him to that field? Aragorn could not contemplate such a thing and returned to the idea of the vision. Did Saruman create this scene as a threat? Was this the future he intended for Rohan? Searching his knowledge for some explanation, some power Saruman could have gained to perform such sorcery, what Aragorn dreaded most was that the wizard had somehow shown him the truth.
The wizard's questions demanded their own answers. If this vision were based in truth, what would he do? As near as he was in this Tower, he could offer Rohan no succor. If he were free to journey to Rohan, what could he do, in truth, to save the people of Rohan now? He had seen enough to know the Rohirrim suffered, if what he had seen was reality. As Saruman had asked him, he now asked himself: was there any hope for them?
No! He stopped his thoughts dead. He would not give in to Saruman's despair so easily. Hope was hard to find from his seat here in Orthanc. As little hope as he might be left with, though, despair would not win him without a struggle.
If only those images of the Rohirrim did not linger....
Pippin focused on the wide pot in his hands as he climbed the high steps, trying not to spill any more of the water before reaching Strider. Carrying the tub of hot water up all those stairs was more difficult than he'd expected, and he no longer had a full container. The pot was too large for him to carry easily, and his arms and back ached from the effort.
But he was almost there, he reminded himself as he reached the top of the stairs. He anxiously retraced his steps back to where he'd left Strider what seemed hours ago. It was silly, he knew, but he felt wary leaving Strider alone with the wizard. The glint in Saruman's eye when he looked upon the man gave Pippin the shivers. Eventually he was going to act on whatever thoughts put such a look on his face. Pippin worried for Strider then.
Saruman was nowhere he could see as he shuffled through the dim hall, trying to be hobbit-quiet on feet sore from walking on hard stone. He hoped he would be able to help Strider, not that Pippin deserved the chance to help. But it was the least he could do. Strider wouldn't ask for any, of course, but most likely he would need his aid.
Pippin made his way into the room where he had left Strider. Puzzled when he didn't see the Ranger at once, Pippin noticed for the first time how many recesses branched off from the main space. He shrugged and began making a circle around the room, looking into each niche for a sign of his friend.
The spaces were small but lightless, and Pippin stepped into each to be sure he didn't miss Strider. After circling halfway round the room, he willed away the worry that began to gnaw at his belly as he peeked into the next one. Finally, he spied a form among the shadows. He took a step inside and waited until his eyes could see in the darkness. Sure enough, there was a man huddled in one of the dark corners. His stomach tightened with foreboding.
Strider leaned against the far wall, unmoving as Pippin approached. The hobbit took in his haggard, disoriented look and guessed that Saruman had finally turned to Strider for his next amusement. Pippin shuddered as he considered what that might mean. Why had Pippin left him? He had to admit he'd been without a choice in the matter. If he had defied Saruman, he would likely have found himself beside Legolas and Gimli. Whether that was slaving away at some impossible task or something far worse was another fate he had yet to learn, for good or ill. He dared to hope Merry was faring well enough, and Pippin forcibly shoved his worry over his cousin from his mind. For the present, he could only offer help to Strider.
Pippin took a few more steps and decided to first rid himself of his burden. Carefully setting the basin on the stone floor so it didn't make a loud noise, Pippin looked to Strider for a reaction. The Ranger was looking off into a distant view only he could see, apparently unaware of the hobbit.
"Strider?" Pippin asked, stepping closer toward him.
Silence answered him. After a long moment that used most of Pippin's patience, Strider turned his head. He stared at Pippin, but somehow the hobbit was sure he did not see him. His stomach began acrobatic antics he did not appreciate. "Strider? Are you well?" The dull and unseeing eyes disturbed Pippin, and the man looked far wearier than when Pippin had left him. If it were possible, Pippin would have said he had aged.
Swallowing his worry and fear, Pippin took a few more slow steps toward the man. "Strider? Are you awake? It's Pippin..." At a loss for another way to get a response, he advanced again. Now he saw confusion in those once clear grey eyes, which began to dart around. "Strider? It's just you and me. There's no one else." He pointed towards the opening of the alcove and Strider's eyes followed. He looked around the room then as if for the first time. It seemed to Pippin that Strider was not sure where he was, or whether Pippin were truly standing there, or if his nightmare continued. "We are in Orthanc, Strider. That much is true. Saruman sent Legolas and Gimli down to the Pits, as they seem to call them. Merry's been made a servant of an Orc, but I wager he'll make the best of that. Perhaps we will soon learn more of the others' fates. I am, well, I am now in the service of Saruman. Do you remember? It is all real, I'm sorry to say, though it sounds more like a nightmare. But right now, Saruman is nowhere to be seen." Pippin looked about him to be sure. "There is only you and me. For the moment, you're safe. Oh, and I have hot water for your leg!" Pippin went back for the pot, set it down closer to Strider, and pulled out some rags from his back pocket. He looked at Strider expectantly, hoping his speech had penetrated the haze in which the man seemed to linger.
Strider then did the most unexpected thing: he began to laugh. A low chuckle, in truth, but it startled Pippin all the same. He wondered if he should worry for Strider's mind. "My dear Pippin," Strider finally said, his voice heavy with weariness, "Thank you."
Pippin smiled uncertainly. "Whatever I've done, I'm glad for it, if it has helped you."
Strider closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. Jerking his head forward and opening his eyes suddenly, he turned once more to Pippin. "You brought me back. I was... I lingered in places I would rather not be."
Pippin looked at Strider with appraising eyes. When he trusted his tongue, he asked, "Where were you, Strider? Where did Saruman take you?"
Despair flickered across Strider's face as Pippin waited. Eventually the man's gaze landed on a pedestal to Pippin's left he had failed to notice. It was about head high to him, and a strange rock sat atop it. It was eerily smooth and shiny, and darker than it should have been, he thought. His brow furrowed with curiosity. He had never seen such a thing.
"He laid my hands on that stone, then..." Strider said nothing more for a time, but the words dimmed some of Pippin's interest. Whatever could affect Strider so strongly must be a terrible thing. "Through some power of his, he showed me ...things. Dreadful things..."
Pippin turned back to Strider. "What sort of rock is that, that it can do such a thing?"
Strider's eyes flickered, and he shook his head sharply, in what looked to Pippin like an attempt to toss away what threatened to return. Strider looked wearier still and his face told of some of the horrors into which Saruman had thrown him. "It seems to be under Saruman's control. Perhaps it holds some old power that works with his own. The visions he brings me may be true or they may be his creation. I do not know. They are as real as you are when I am there."
As he saw the despair and weariness resurface in Strider's face, Pippin began to understand how Saruman intended to punish the man. For Legolas and Gimli, who meant little to him, physical punishment was enough. For this man, greater than all of them, his punishment was also to be greater. Whatever he planned, he had begun with his mind.
He turned his focus to Strider now, who looked beyond weary, moving slowly and gingerly. The water! "Well, we should get to this water before it goes cold, shouldn't we? It would be a shame to waste it."
"Yes, yes, please." He tried to move closer to the pot, but sagged against the wall in defeat after a meager attempt. "Forgive me, Pippin. I must ask-"
"Oh, of course." He dragged the water next to Strider and grabbed the rags. "What can I do to help?" Strider stuck his finger in the water. That he failed to swiftly pull his finger out told Pippin the water had cooled considerably. "Is it still hot enough? Will it work?"
"Was it boiling when you started?"
"Yes, boiling furiously. I let it boil a bit on the fire before taking it, hoping it would take longer to cool."
"That was good, as it better cleans the water as well." Strider slowly stretched out his injured leg, looking at the wound, which lay exposed through a large tear in his legging. He sighed heavily. "...hope this works," Pippin heard him say under his breath. Strider took a rag and dropped it into the water, then after squeezing out the water simply laid the rag on the wound. Still, he winced. He laid a shaking hand on the skin above his knee. "The infection has begun to spread. You will need to bring me hot water as often as you are able."
"Of course. I'll do my best." He watched silently as Strider squeezed out a new rag over the wound, and Pippin wondered if his tremors were due to exhaustion, hunger, or something worse. He thought again of the stone and of what he had told him. "What did you see, when you touched it?" Although he could not help asking, he feared the answer, feared for Strider and what more he might have to endure.
Strider sighed heavily. So long the silence stretched that Pippin thought he would not get an answer, and then, "Rohan, destroyed. They were all destroyed. Every last one..." He shook himself. "I could do nothing to help or hinder. I could only watch as the Rohirrim were cut down... I may never know the truth of what I have seen and trying to discern the reality will drive me into madness. But it is likely the suffering of the Rohirrim is true." Once more he was silent and still.
"Don't think on it further, Strider. Let's attend to this leg, why don't we?"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.